In Praise of Dongles

There’s more to adapters than meets the eye

Photo: from author

SoSo here’s a thing that I don’t usually say in public: I love cables. To be more specific, I love the connectors. The actual wire I can take or leave, really, but the metal end that fits into the port is where the power is. Cables suggest possibilities; the possibility of linking together pieces of hardware. When I see a connector, I feel a little frisson of excitement. I start thinking of peripheral devices I can make speak to each other. Often there’s a satisfying click when you plug the cable into the corresponding port. Some are better than others of course, but I have a soft spot for the annoying cables, too. Yes, even the wobbly old SCART cable that fit soggily into its port, wobbling against its rubber edge. Its name, SCART, stands for Syndicat des Constructeurs d’Appareils Radiorécepteurs et Téléviseurs, the beautifully long-winded French organization that designed the cable. It sounds so archaic; in my head, I imagine the president used to be Voltaire or Diderot or someone like that.

When I see a connector, I feel a little frisson of excitement.

Best of all is the adapter. This isn’t a popular view, I know. These days we treat the adapter, or dongle, with derision. They are a frustration, a necessary (or maybe, even, unnecessary) evil, possibly a money-getting game. As if those $1,000 phones were sold at a loss to make way for the real profit-making enterprise: $40 cables. “Apple makes 23 different dongles — and it would cost you $857 to buy them all,” Business Insider says. But when I see this list of adapters, I don’t see avarice on the part of Apple (beyond the usual Apple premium). I see possibilities. The ability to connect your iPhone or Mac to your television, to your digital camera, to an old analog projector you found in the back of a cupboard.

Photo: James McKinven/Unsplash

The unspoken suggestion from Business Insider and other articles critical of adapters is that we shouldn’t have to buy them. That it is the manufacturer’s fault for not including every possible cable in the box or the correct ports on the device itself. This may be true for headphones but including every port on every device? Could the iPhone really house an HDMI port? And a full-size USB port? And a VGA port? Just because one or two people might want to connect an old monitor? This pushes the problem downstream, replacing dongle-gate with port-gate. Our devices would be several times the size with a menagerie of ports down the side. We’d all need bigger pockets.

I’I’ve never liked the word “dongle.” It has an air of contempt. Barely hidden inside the word is the crude suggestion of “dong,” as if the component itself is an X-rated appendage that should be tucked away at all times. A more generous etymological reading might see it as a playful variant of “dangle.” But that only describes one particular type; specifically the white, Apple, cabled adapter with a Lightning or USB-C connector on one end, a short dangle-y cable, and then the desired port on the other end.

Adapter is a much better word because it describes what the device does, not how it looks. Dongle sounds passive, as if it just hangs there doing nothing. Adapter with it’s “er” ending is active, part of a set of things that do something: a trader, a cooker, a writer, an adapter. The word comes from the Latin adaptare, meaning “to fit,” which is exactly what adapters do: they make things fit that don’t. I like the connotations of the word. It sounds almost Darwinian: “It is not the strongest that survives; but the one that is able best to adapt.” One could perhaps say the same of technology. The DVD player with only a DisplayPort output may find itself going the way of the dodo when pitted against the TV with only an HDMI port. Unless that is, someone has an HDMI to DisplayPort adapter handy. The right adapter allows our devices to survive.

Photo: Lucian Alexe/Unsplash

Rather than being a money-getting game, dongles let you get more from your existing products. They save you from buying new devices and allow you to do things that you’d otherwise need additional hardware for.

AsAs a teenager, I amassed connectors and adapters. The back of my computer was a forest of cables and ports. My aim, perhaps even an unconscious one, was to ensure that I’d be able to interface with every device that any friends brought round. Given that I was the sort of teenager who thought that amassing connectors was a neat way to spend my time, I wasn’t run off my feet with friends bringing over devices that needed connecting to my computer. But I didn’t mind. Knowing I was prepared was what mattered.

I wonder sometimes if this is how linguists feel about foreign languages: learning grammar, syntax, and vocabulary so that they are able to communicate with as many people in as many different countries as possible. I have Lightning, USB-C, and micro-USB cables. I can speak Android and Apple. I’ve never been very good at languages, but I think I recognize the same intellectual fulfillment when connecting an old microphone to an iPad. Communication has happened. A wall has been breached.

I’ve never liked the word “dongle.” It has an air of contempt.

The challenge with dongles, of course, is that you tend not to have every adapter. Even I, an adapter hoarder, don’t have all 23 official Apple dongles. And even if I had, those are just the tip of the dongle iceberg. Instead, we all make do. I find ways of connecting devices together to work around the limitations of the cables available. At times it becomes an intellectual exercise, like trying to build something in Lego when you don’t have the piece you want. What can I use instead?

I have a suspicion that adapters use the same part of my brain that used to play with shape-sorters as a baby: the bucket with holes in the shape of stars, circles, and squares and shaped blocks that you need to put into each hole in the correct orientation. Is that so different from trying to fit a USB cable into the port the right way round? If my two-year-old self saw me trying to plug in a USB drive, he would be embarrassed by how little I’ve improved over the last 30 years.

Of course, fitting the connector into the port is only half of the battle. Just because it fits doesn’t mean data will flow between the devices or in the right direction. But I delight in finding the strange edge cases and ways of connecting devices to pass data between them. Adapters are the ambassadors of the tech world, bridging and negotiating to allow devices from different (possibly even warring) companies to pass data between each other peacefully.

Photo: Liam Martens/Unsplash

The need for adapters is due to a failure of standards. DVI, HDMI, DisplayPort, MHL, SDI — all of these, ultimately, transfer digital video yet each of these differently shaped, incompatible, possibly even proprietary ports has its own benefit or disadvantage. Companies didn’t just invent these ports for fun, they did it because they needed to do something that existing technologies didn’t allow.

Those that complain about the rise of dongles are misdirecting their ire. It is not the makers of the dongles who are at fault. It is the failure of companies to agree to common, future-proof connectors that can be built into every device, allowing seamless communication across commercial and national boundaries. The adapter-makers combat the slew of different connectors, finding ways to let us connect our devices together.

This world is getting ever more complicated. When all we passed around was analog audio, as long as you had a good piece of copper and a tight connection you had lift off. But now we have protocols and message types, 4K video, power, and data. The adapters we have today are a world of complexity away from the ones we had in the past.

The right adapter allows our devices to survive.

In 2013, the American software company Panic came across something strange. They plugged their iPad into an official Apple Lighting to HDMI adapter and then into a television screen. When they looked closely at the screen, they noticed some digital imperfections, called artifacts, that weren’t there on their iPad screen. This was unusual. The adapter should just send a copy of what was on the phone screen, so the two should be identical. However, these imperfections suggested what was being played on the TV was different from what was on the iPad. These so-called artifacts were what you got when a computer was processing the video, rather than an adapter just mirroring it.

So they took a hacksaw to the adapter to see what was happening. Inside, were some tiny components. “You would not believe how incredibly tiny those components are,” Panic said, “Smaller than anything we’ve seen, electronics-wise,” Then, when they looked really closely, they noticed some writing on them.

That tiny chip says ARM. And the H9TKNNN2GD part number on there points towards RAM — 2GB worth.

RAM. The memory that computers use to store work-in-progress and machine code. And 2GB isn’t a small amount of RAM either. That’s the amount that’s in an iPhone 8. Half as much that it’s an iPad Pro. This dongle is a tiny computer. It doesn’t just receive a video signal and pass it along. It processes and transcodes the video in real-time before sending it to the TV. That goes some way to explaining why it costs $50.

And while some people met this with derision and bemoan Apple’s decision, I’m with the anonymous comment, supposedly from an Apple engineer, who said:

We didn’t do this to screw the customer. We did this to specifically shift the complexity of the “adapter” bit into the adapter itself, leaving the host hardware free of any concerns in regards to what was hanging off the other end of the Lightning cable. If you wanted to produce a Lightning adapter that offered something like a GPIB port (don’t laugh, I know some guys doing exactly this) on the other end, then the only support you need to implement on the iDevice is in software, not hardware.

This is what adapters enable. I don’t even have any devices with GPIB ports, but now I feel jealous of people that do have and are able to connect them to their iPhones.

IIt’s unfair to lay too much blame at the feet of the connector designers. Things change. Standard definition becomes high definition, becomes 4K, becomes 8K, becomes 3D. And so goes the continual march of progression. How could those in the past have predicted future requirements and built them into their connectors before they’d even been invented? Our past devices would have cost a fortune, and our future devices would be limited by the technology restrictions of 30 years ago. Even now, how do we know what will come next and what we’ll want in our ports in 2030? Technology improves at a rapid rate, and we want the new features now while not having to replace each device every time there’s a new standard. My TV is from 2019, my computer from 2014, my DVD player from 2004. Our own collection of devices enacts William Gibson’s famous saying: “the future is here, it’s just not evenly distributed.” Just replace “the future” with USB-C.

HHaving said all of this, I’m starting to fall out of love with adapters. Maybe now that I’m no longer a starving student, I’ve gentrified myself which means I’ve stopped deriving pleasure in Heath Robinson-style contraptions to plug my printer into my laptop. Instead, I just want to use one neat cable and be done with it.

Other than all the empty space, this could be a photograph of the contraptions I put together in my room as a student. Illustration: William Heath Robinson Inventions/Wikicommons

There is something clumsy about Apple’s white dongles with the weak, breakable, and ultimately unnecessary cable in the middle. Adapters of yesteryear were solid pieces of metal and plastic. They weren’t given the onomatopoeic moniker “dongle” because they didn’t dangle. These new dangle-y dongles are weaker and, to my mind, uglier, than the more mechanical and professional adapters of the past.

The adapters we have today are a world of complexity away from the ones we had in the past.

My new joy is finding single cables to connect devices together without the need for any fiddling around. I want as few cables as possible. But I still have my collection of adapters. In preparations for “emergencies” that, 20 years later, are still to emerge. Increasingly, it is looking like they now never will.

Time has moved on. The internet has become the everything connector. By the time I’ve rummaged in my cupboard to find the esoteric piece of plastic that will join a camera to an iPad, someone else has emailed the photos to themselves. Every device seems to be able to connect to the internet these days. Dropbox has become the ultimate adapter.

Meanwhile, USB-C has cast a cloud over the adapter world. In theory, USB-C is the everything connector. A single unified port that allows anything to be sent over it. It is the lingua franca of ports. And, at its best, it is. Yet the reality can be disappointing. In theory, all should support 100-watts of power and data rates of 10Gbps. But with the rise of cheap cables, a USB-C cable is not always a USB-C cable. It will fit, it may even work, but it won’t work properly. All those years spent practicing putting the triangle block into the triangle hole, only to find the triangle is a cheap knockoff from China.

In a weird sort of way, we’re heading back to an analog world. No longer can you pick up a USB-C cable and know for sure that it will do all the USB-C things. Instead, you need to read the tiny, technical print on the side of the packet, to determine its power delivery rate, data-throughput speed, and it’s alternative mode support. You may need to check whether it supports DisplayPort, MHL, HDMI, Ethernet, and audio as well. That’s a lot of letters and standards and numbers to check. And that’s assuming the packet even tells you.

We will get there in the end of course. Quality improves, progress marches inexorably forward. But when I look at my collection of cables, adapters, and, yes, dongles too, gathering dust in boxes in my cupboard and under my bed, I think to myself: I’m not going to be throwing any of you out just yet. You know, just in case.

Media techie, developer, product manager, software person and web-stuff doer. Head of Corporate Digital at BBC, but views my own. More at pittster.co.uk

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